No Tricks

Frank Kermode

  • Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Prose by Raymond Carver
    Harvill, 300 pp, £15.00, July 2000, ISBN 1 86046 759 8

Raymond Carver was much taken with the idea that every writer creates a distinctive world: ‘Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications … It is his world and no other.’ The idea is hardly original but one sees why he liked it. Carver’s world is something like a room in which the television is always on, unless you happen to be subjecting the neighbours to home movies. The ashtrays are overflowing. There may be an alcoholic, active or reformed, lying on the living-room sofa. Is he thinking about the pint of whiskey he has hidden under the cushions; or has he just got home from an exhausting AA meeting? He has a job he does not like and is not getting on with his wife, who may well be at work in a fast-food restaurant. If so he might just go along there and watch the male customers eyeing her shape. Living somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, he is probably thinking of moving house, perhaps just across the state line to Portland, a city often mentioned but never visited, or, more ambitiously and yet more hopelessly, to Alaska. However, he never does seem to move, and if he ever did find himself in Alaska he would still spend much time smoking on the sofa in front of the television. If he has children he cannot think them unmixed blessings. He knows he needs to love them but cannot bring himself to believe the pleasures of parenthood outweigh its pains.

He and his wife only rarely have neighbourly relations with other people; to be asked out to dinner is to face a small social crisis, in which all parties behave with a touchingly awkward, repetitive, unpractised courtesy. The kinds of thing they say on such occasions, as on all others, are recorded with bleak and dispassionate accuracy. Out in the inhospitable great world, not far away from the street where they live, are many pitilessly illuminated motels and gas stations, as aptly pictured on the jacket of this book, on which the photograph powerfully, inevitably, alludes to Edward Hopper. Whatever is going to happen around here is likely to be depressing: possibly just a marital argument, more seriously a fire in a neighbour’s house or the death of a child. Such happiness as can be expected must be looked for on fishing trips, and even fishing trips are likely to be ruined by the intrusion of a floating corpse. Yet some stories turn out to be funny in unexpected ways.

This latest Carver is a miscellany containing five posthumously discovered stories, five early stories not previously collected, and some essays and reviews. Some of the essays are autobiographical. His father, also called Raymond, worked in sawmills, moved a lot and drank a lot. Carver married young and also moved and drank a lot. He had an ambition to be a writer but his life was so disrupted by the need to make a little money and by the incessant demands of his children that he could never get far with a novel. He had to be content with short stories and poems, and in time came to prefer brevity. ‘Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’ ‘No tricks’ is another piece of advice, picked up at a creative writing course, and studiously followed. The prohibition applies to terminal narrative twists, though sometimes he allows himself one, as in the story ‘Vandals’, in this last book. But it extends to more modern ‘formal innovations’ as well. They are not needed and they destroy the story’s contact with the real: ‘It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things – a chair, a window curtain, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’

Carver came to be exceptionally good at short stories not only because he worked hard at them, but also because he listened to advice, especially from John Gardner but also, more remotely, from Hemingway, Chekhov and V.S. Pritchett. One of the things he learned was the need for arduous revision, draft after draft. Another lesson was that the writer needs to trust the tale. Lawrence notoriously advised the reader to do so, but the writer has to trust it because it will collaborate in the composition of the work if the work is any good. Carver is impressed by Flannery O’Connor’s remark that she started work without knowing where the story was going: when she began ‘Good Country People’ she ‘didn’t know there was going to be a PhD with a wooden leg in it’. Carver might have a single phrase in his head as a donnée: ‘He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang.’ Given time, more sentences attached themselves to this one and finally there is story called ‘Put Yourself in My Shoes’, which turns out to be one of the funny ones, though a little sad also.

Here are some of Carver’s openings:

I had a job and Patti didn’t.

Earl Ober was between jobs as a salesman.

My marriage had just fallen apart. I couldn’t find a job. I had another girl. But she wasn’t in town.

I was out of work. But any day I expected to hear from up north.

I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain.

It was the middle of August and Myers was between lives.

The last of these belongs to a story in the present collection, called ‘Kindling’. Myers is a drunk, fresh from 28 days in a drying-out facility, during which time his wife has run away with another drunk. He takes a room he has spotted in a small ad and finds himself shyly sharing a little house with a nervous, civil couple, poor but neither kind nor unkind, neither generous nor mean. Myers keeps himself to himself. When not working the man of the house watches television, the wife wants to write, and tries to write about Myers. One day a load of wood is delivered. Chopping it up is a big job and the husband has no time to do it. Myers, without payment, without being asked, cuts the wood, though, as requested, he does nothing about the kindling. He finishes the job and writes some words about the experience in his notebook: ‘I have sawdust in my shirtsleeves tonight. It’s a sweet smell.’ Then he ends his stay.

You are entitled to think the woodcutting did him good, even that he was about to start on a new life, but nothing is said directly about the therapeutic effects of hard labour, or of the causes of Myers’s spontaneous generosity: these are precisely the sorts of thing Carver by his own hard labour learned not to say. One of his best stories is ‘A Small, Good Thing’, in the collection Cathedral. A woman orders a birthday cake at the local bakery, but her schoolboy son is knocked down by a car on his birthday and dies in hospital. The baker, wanting payment for the uncollected cake, nags her with phone calls. The woman and her husband confront the baker. There are insults, then a humane reconciliation, and they sit and eat some of the baker’s richest bread. It would be useless to try in words other than the author’s to give an idea of the depth and humanity of this story, a late one done when Carver was allowing himself to write at greater length, as, in the later years, he decided he ought, citing as a model Chekhov’s ‘Ward 6’. The title story of the last volume, ‘Cathedral’, he regarded as a turning point in his career, but the career suddenly came to an end. Perhaps, had he lived, he would have moved on to the novella. One can feel sure that V.S. Pritchett would have admired both these stories, as Carver would have admired Pritchett’s favourite among his own, ‘When My Girl Comes Home’.

For various reasons the English short story is now a predominantly American form. There are hardly any London outlets, while New York still has a few, which sometimes accept British stories, as with Sylvia Townsend Warner and also, of course, Pritchett. There are many annual prizes for stories. Moreover the form fits better than the novel into the pattern of the creative writing courses that are taught all over the country and often by good writers. Carver says it was a struggle to get his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, published in 1976. It took 13 years to write (‘the long delay was due in part to a young marriage, the exigencies of child-rearing and blue-collar jobs, a little education on the fly’) and the publisher took some persuading, but the prospects for American writers were even then better than for their British contemporaries. Later Carver could claim in an optimistic essay that there has never been a better time than the present for his aspiring compatriots and contemporaries; this is not to say it’s easy, but it’s far less difficult. ‘Short stories are flourishing,’ he says, and the readership is increasing.

Naturally no writer on this side of the ocean sounds very like Carver, deep in what is now a naturalised tradition and in a world of his own. One of his stories reminded me faintly of an excellent one by William Trevor called ‘Broken Homes’, in which a group of adolescents, from broken homes, sent in as an experiment in ‘community relations’, cheerfully defile and desecrate the home of an 87-year-old woman. The story is the more horrible in that the teacher who sent these ‘good kids’ to the old woman’s house is impervious to complaint; the old woman ends by blaming herself for her failure to communicate with the kids, who covered her kitchen and carpets with paint, released her budgerigars, and had sex in her bed. Carver has stories about cruelty and old age, but he is, perhaps curiously, less interested in emphasising the lurid nastiness of the tormentors. Perhaps a sort of natural piety that shows through in his most serious pieces would have prevented him from imposing such garish humiliations.

Or they may be what his American studies in the craft have taught him to leave out. There seems to be a rule against seeming to be excited by a situation. A good instance is the story ‘Vitamins’ in Cathedral. The narrator has ‘a nothing job’ and his wife sells vitamins from door to door. He goes on a date with one of his wife’s colleagues and takes her to a black bar, where they are menaced by a Vietnam veteran who carries an ear in a cigarette case: ‘I took it off one of them gooks. He wouldn’t hear nothing with it no more. I wanted me a keepsake.’ The vet, drunk but cold, coarse and threatening, propositions the girl. The proprietor arrives to prevent bloodshed and they leave the bar, the little affair already over. The girl says she could have done with the money and resolves to go to Portland; the man goes home and disturbs his sleeping wife, noisily looking for aspirin. There is no actual violence in this desperate tale, though the language of the veteran suggests a whole continent of terror, as the conduct of the narrator and the girl sketches a society in despair.

Indeed there is not much violence in any of the stories; instead Carver is very good on anomie and also on certain kinds of pain. ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’, the story that gave its title to the collection published in 1976, concerns a rather proper young schoolteacher’s discovery that years before his wife had had a drunken one-night stand with a friend. This revelation, though the fact was long suspected, causes severe pain, carefully and reticently explored. Such lesser discomforts as having to be on friendly terms with a wife’s ex-lover are equally well managed. Commentators often find themselves talking about Carver’s ‘clarity’ and that is fair enough, but there is always something the reader has to say, and will say confusedly, because of the indefinitely large context it is suggested he or she must supply.

Carver died of lung cancer at 50. Much that happened in this rather short life was unfavourable to the business of writing. First he needed to get an education, but making a living in nothing jobs hindered that. Then there were the children: ‘They were born before I was 20, and from beginning to end of our habitation under the same roof – some 19 years in all – there wasn’t any area of my life where their heavy and often baleful influence didn’t reach.’ In an autobiographical sketch he illustrates this misery by an anecdote. In the mid-1960s he is in a laundromat with five or six loads of washing, mostly kids’. He has to wait a long time for a free dryer, is anxious because he is late and has to pick up the kids. His misery is unforgettable; he is almost in tears at being in ‘this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction’. He has a job at a service station, or as a janitor or a delivery man, with the prospect of many more years in this unwriterly posture, so unlike the situation of the well-known writers he admires. And after these destructive years of parenting there was an alcoholic hiatus, ten years of silence, before he joined his present editor, Tess Gallagher, and started writing again.

Carver was sure you could learn to write well, to find out by constant revision what the story you were working on really amounted to, and he more than once records his debts to John Gardner as a teacher, and to Gordon Lish as his editor. Partly by their efforts he became a very famous writer, at any rate in America.

When Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? appeared in 1976, Gordon Lish sent me six copies, for he was sure I would want to spread the good news. I duly distributed them among my literary colleagues and waited for a response, but there was none. Carver’s British reception has taken a little time. The Robert Altman movie Short Cuts, of 1993, based on nine stories and a poem of Carver’s, helped to get him wider notice. Among the stories incorporated in the film were ‘A Small, Good Thing’ – the one about the bereaved couple and the exigent baker – and ‘So Much Water Close to Home’, about the girl’s body discovered, but not reported, on a fishing trip. These are stories of high quality, as are many of the others. Now one can read almost everything in volumes published by the Harvill Press.

There is quite a lot of verse, most easily found in Fires (1984). Americans seem to assume more readily than we do a close affinity between poems and stories. The fact that I am not impressed by the poems may be related to that difference. A collection of prose pieces of varying weight, to be found mostly in Fires and in the present volume, are written with the usual care, though not all of them – brief reviews, prefaces to anthologies and the like – seem worth preserving for their own sakes. From this censure the autobiographical material must be exempted. As for the minor pieces, they have been collected as a sort of tribute to the great man, the kind of thing it is seemly to do on the understanding that it is not really that these bits and pieces matter in themselves: what matters is the fact that they were written by the hand that wrote the stories.